Essential Functions and Job Descriptions: Say What You Mean to Say

Essential Functions and Job Descriptions: Say What You Mean to Say

 In Henschel v. Clare County Road Commission [an enhanced version of this opinion is available to subscribers], the 6th Circuit reminded employers that the determination of what responsibilities are essential job functions is typically a question of fact not suitable for determination by summary judgment. The court reversed and remanded the case to the district court which had found the plaintiff could not perform an essential function of his job.

The plaintiff was employed as an excavator operator by the road commission. He lost his left leg above his knee as a result of a motorcycle accident. After recovering from the accident, the plaintiff asked to return to work. He had received a medical waiver allowing him to retain his CDL but was restricted to driving vehicles with automatic transmissions.

The road commission advised the plaintiff in a letter that he was being terminated because of his inability to transport the excavator to the work site. The court noted that before the termination, the road commission did not ask the semi-driver if he would be willing to transport the excavator to the work site.

The court reviewed the regulations which accompany the ADA with respect to the determination of whether a job function is essential. Consideration is given under statute to the employer's judgment of what is essential, and if the employer has prepared a written job description, that description is considered evidence of the essential functions of the job. The road commission had included the function of hauling equipment in the job description of the Truck/Tractor driver. There was no similar inclusion of the hauling function in the job description for the excavator operator. As a result, there was a genuine issue of material fact concerning whether hauling the excavator was an essential job function. The attempt to argue that the duty fell within the catchall "Other duties assigned." was rejected by the court since essential functions are those that are fundamental to a particular position and not marginal functions from other job categories.

The lesson for employers is obvious:  if they believe a function is essential to a position, and if they have written job descriptions, the failure to include a function will be virtually impossible to overcome in a subsequent dispute over whether a function is truly essential.

 For additional Labor and Employment law insights from John Holmquist, visit the Michigan Employment Law Connection.

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